3 Things The Most Productive People Do Every Day

productive

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Before we commence with the festivities, I wanted to thank everyone for helping my first book become a Wall Street Journal bestseller. To check it out, click here.

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There were 5 goals I wanted to accomplish by the end of the year… and I only have 8 to go.

It’s December. How are you doing in terms of what you wanted to achieve for 2021?

It’s hard. I look at it like the “Zeno’s Paradox of Productivity”: feels like we’re always getting closer to accomplishing everything — but we never manage to arrive. We want to kill two birds with one stone and we’re lucky to kill one bird with three stones. (The record for killing birds with one stone will continue to be held by the asteroid that ended the reign of the dinosaurs.)

It’s like our brains can’t manage it all. You could wallpaper the Grand Canyon with the productivity tips we get on the internet but most of those seem like they’re trying to turn us into a robot. Yes, if you lock yourself in a room with nothing but the goal du jour for 8 hours a day you can get stuff done — but that turns life a stultifying shade of monochrome real fast.

Don’t worry. There are solutions. We just need to look at the problem differently. Instead of reducing your life to nothing but the task at hand, we need to expand our minds. (No, I’m not recommending LSD.)

Look at it this way: How would you feel if you lost your smartphone or your laptop? Sorry for the panic attack but you’d feel like you lost part of your brain. Because in the modern era those things pretty much are expansions of your mind. They amplify your cognitive abilities.

As the comedian Emo Philips once said, “I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.” We often have a “neurocentric bias.” We think we’re only limited to what the gray matter inside our heads can do, but the people who really get a lot done are also smart about marshaling outside resources to improve their focus, attention, and creativity.

And a big part of leveraging those things (like computers) is realizing that your brain is not a computer. It has moods, feelings, and other stuff that machines don’t need to worry about. It works by different rules — but when we work with those rules we can accomplish so much more.

I’ve culled the appalling literary swamp of malignantly useless productivity books and found something that can really help us. Annie Murphy Paul’s research-packed new tome, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain is exactly what we need.

Let’s get to it…

 

Sitting Still Is Overrated

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman does his best thinking while he’s walking. In fact, he’s so aware of this that he even knows his best walking speed for coming up with great ideas: 17 minutes per mile. He’s not the first genius to realize the power of walking. Nietzsche said, “Only thoughts which come from walking have any value” and Emerson concluded that walking is “gymnastics for the mind.”

And science agrees. A Stanford study showed that students came up with more creative ideas when walking around campus vs sitting in a classroom. The researchers wrote: “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”

Nice, right? But it goes beyond that. Movement sharpens our minds. If you’re ever facing a potential cancer diagnosis, hide your radiologist’s chair.

From The Extended Mind:

…radiologists who remained seated spotted an average of 85 percent of the irregularities present in the images, while those who walked identified, on average, fully 99 percent of them.

But why the heck is walking such a powerful cognitive enhancer? Scientists believe it goes back to our hunter-gatherer origins. We’re wired to be scanning the environment while engaged in physical challenges. When we’re moving around, our mental faculties are dialed up.

So how can we leverage this brain booster? It’s well known that being fit makes us smarter in general but new research shows quick bouts of exercise make us smarter in the short term as well. Try to work out before you need to do your best thinking. Or go for a brisk walk during your breaks. After some moderate-intensity exercise, your mind gets a 2-hour Mario Power-Up.

From The Extended Mind:

Moderate-intensity exercise, practiced for a moderate length of time, improves our ability to think both during and immediately after the activity. The positive changes documented by scientists include an increase in the capacity to focus attention and resist distraction; greater verbal fluency and cognitive flexibility; enhanced problem-solving and decision-making abilities; and increased working memory, as well as more durable long-term memory for what is learned… The beneficial mental effects of moderately intense activity have been shown to last for as long as two hours after exercise ends.

Want some of these benefits all day long? Try a standing desk.

From The Extended Mind:

Research has found that the use of a standing desk is associated with an enhancement in students’ executive function—that crucial capacity for planning and decision making—and with an increase in “on-task engagement.” In adults, working at a standing desk has been shown to boost productivity.

Almost any kind of movement can be a brain sharpener. Yes, that even means fidgeting. Moving is natural and we actually need to expend cognitive resources to suppress the urge to move.

From The Extended Mind:

Subjects’ cognitive load “considerably increased under the instruction ‘not to move,’ ” Langhanns and Müller report… Of the three conditions, the requirement to remain still produced the poorest performance on the math problems… “Sitting quietly,” the researchers conclude, “is not necessarily the best condition for learning in school.”

And when you’re communicating with others, gesture. It reduces cognitive load, improves memory, and helps others understand us better. Gesturing actually stimulates the auditory cortex in people you talk to, telling them, “Listen up. This part is important.”

From The Extended Mind:

In one study, subjects who had watched a videotaped speech were 33 percent more likely to recall a point from the talk if it was accompanied by a gesture…

Next time you’re on a Zoom call, make sure they can see your hands.

From The Extended Mind:

…people who gesture as they teach on video, it’s been found, speak more fluently and articulately, make fewer mistakes, and present information in a more logical and intelligible fashion.

(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

Movement is great. But how do we leverage our environment to expand our brains?

 

Your Personal “Environmental Protection Agency”

The modern office is a Boschian hellscape when it comes to focus and productivity. Your home office may not be much better. Noise, distractions, and interruptions are all disastrous for concentration and creativity.

Yes, isolating yourself with nothing but your work can help but now we’re back to productivity-as-prison-cell, treating your brain like it’s a computer. You are not a computer. (If you were, I would’ve written this post in binary.)

So what does your not-a-computer brain need? An interior decorator. I’m not kidding. Take some time to make your workspace your own. We’re more confident, focused, efficient, and productive in places that give us a feeling of ownership and control.

Researchers put one group of subjects in a “lean office” (no decoration), another group in an “enriched office” (posters and potted plants), yet another in a “disempowered office” (decorated, but the room was rearranged without their consent), and the final group in an “empowered office” (people could arrange the room as they wished.) Guess which folks performed best?

From The Extended Mind:

In the lean office, found Knight and Haslam, participants invested a low level of effort in their assigned work; they were listless and lackadaisical. In the disempowered office, subjects’ productivity was similarly mediocre; in addition, they were very, very unhappy… In the enriched office, participants worked harder and were more productive; in the empowered office, people performed best of all. They got 30 percent more done there than in the lean office, and about 15 percent more than in the enriched office.

What else can we do? You can use your eyeballs better. Your visual system is a powerful complement to your brain, so offload some work to it. Building “concept maps” that visualize and structure the ideas you’re working on means you don’t have to juggle all those things in your mind. (Those cork boards that the FBI agent in the movies uses to assemble all the evidence about the serial killer? Yeah, those things help.)

And what’s a simple way to get some of these benefits all the time without the effort? Get a big freakin’ monitor. When you use computers with small screens you have to manage more in your head, and that’s a mental resource drain.

From The Extended Mind:

When using a large display, they engaged in higher-order thinking, arrived at a greater number of discoveries and achieved broader, more integrative insights. Such gains are not a matter of individual differences or preferences, Ball emphasizes; everyone who engages with the larger display finds that their thinking is enhanced.

Want to take it to the next level? Okay, get two big freakin’ monitors. The more visual real estate you have to move information around, the more you offload from your mind. Instead of using memory, your brain can leverage peripheral vision to work with more concepts – no active effort necessary.

From The Extended Mind:

Researchers from the University of Virginia and from Carnegie Mellon University reported that study participants were able to recall 56 percent more information when it was presented to them on multiple monitors rather than on a single screen.

Now you know what to request as a holiday gift.

(Want to know the 4 things that the most organized people do every day? Click here.)

Okay, your office environment is decorated and visualized. But there’s another environment you can leverage to amplify your brain’s abilities…

 

Human Nature (Emphasis on “Nature”)

Unless a computer is left out in a hailstorm, it’s not affected much by its environment. You, however, are. And dramatically so. You need to get outdoors more. Yes, you’ve heard it before but this tip gets ignored so much we should call it “terms and conditions.” If you live in the US you spend only about 7% of your time outside.

Want to increase focus? Spend more time in nature.

From The Extended Mind:

People who have recently spent time amid outdoor greenery catch more errors on a proofreading assignment, for example, and provide quicker and more accurate answers on a fast-paced cognitive test, than do people who have just finished a walk in an urban setting.

This is powerful. How powerful? As powerful as giving Ritalin to kids with ADHD.

From The Extended Mind:

…Taylor and Kuo point out, a twenty-minute walk in a park improved children’s concentration and impulse control as much as a dose of an ADHD drug like Ritalin.

No, I’m not saying you need to drag your desk out into a forest. Getting some of these advantages isn’t hard at all. Got 40 seconds to spare?

From The Extended Mind:

Researchers from the University of Melbourne in Australia found that a forty-second “micro-break” spent looking out at a roof covered with flowering meadow plants led study participants to perform better on a cognitive test than did an equally short break spent looking at a bare concrete expanse.

(Want to know how to stop being lazy and get more done? Click here.)

Okay, your mind is expanded. Let’s round it all up and we’ll also discuss that other thing that can amplify your brain – other humans…

 

Sum Up

Here’s how to expand your mind’s abilities to get more done:

  • Move: Getting your body going gets your brain going. Try a standing desk. Go for walks when you need a break. Don’t be afraid to fidget. (And if this is all making sense to you it’s because I’m gesturing as I type.)
  • Manipulate Your Environment: Get a big monitor to leverage your visual system. And decorate. (Now you know how Martha Stewart accomplishes so much.)
  • Get Out in Nature: Go outside. Yes, that place you’ve heard about where the sun is. Or just look outside for 40 seconds. Yes, you can microdose Mother Nature.

Your brain can do abstract work but it functions better when things are framed socially.

When you play poker against other people your gray matter actually behaves differently than when you compete against a computer. Neuroscientists have noted that a human brain competing against another human doesn’t even resemble a brain playing against a machine. More regions are activated. The reward areas work harder, as do the areas for empathy and planning. You engage in “theory of mind” trying to understand your opponent. And all this makes you perform better.

But let’s not focus on competition because there’s another social scenario where your brain is firing on all cylinders — and it’s a bit more warm and friendly: teaching others.

From The Extended Mind:

…laboratory research and real-world programs consistently show that engaging students in tutoring their peers has benefits for all involved, and especially for the ones doing the teaching. Why would the act of teaching produce learning—for the teacher? The answer is that teaching is a deeply social act, one that initiates a set of powerful cognitive, attentional, and motivational processes that have the effect of changing the way the teacher thinks.

And it’s no small effect. Numerous studies show that first born children are smarter than their siblings, usually by 2 or 3 IQ points. For the longest time researchers couldn’t figure out why. But when they dove deep into the literature it turned out the most likely reason was because they often have to teach their younger brothers and sisters. By helping others get smarter, we make ourselves smarter too.

So often productivity advice is limiting. Narrowing. Just pushing us harder to be more like a machine. But we need to expand our minds. And to remember that we’re not computers. (The closest we get to being a machine is that taking a nap often resolves mental issues the way rebooting your laptop resolves computer issues.)

Stop trying to be a machine and leverage your humanity to accomplish more. You may never be as efficient as Robocop or the Terminator but those two can’t solve a captcha and you can.

When we broaden our minds and connect with others it’s not just productivity that improves.

Life does.

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